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Local teens volunteer at Israeli camps

Encouraging self-esteem for credit

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Adam Weiss, left, and co-counselor Meirah Freiden of Memphis, second from right, with campers Bat-Chen, Sharon, and Kenan in Dimona. courtesy yeshiva university

Elianna Wolf of Passaic hopes to be a psychologist. Her experience running a day camp for underprivileged kids in the Israeli development town of Arad this summer has provided a sharper focus for her dream.

“I have a newfound knowledge of what it’s like for teens going through hard self-esteem issues, specifically in these poor communities where they’re embarrassed about their families and backgrounds,” said Wolf, a rising junior at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University. “A lot of my students said negative things about themselves. In the future, I really want to work on that self-esteem issue with teens.”

Wolf was one of 15 New Jersey residents taking part in the month-long Counterpoint Israel service-learning initiative sponsored by the Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future. Now in its sixth year, the program attracted 34 high-achieving students from North America, Canada, South Africa, and New Zealand. They earned graduate-level credit for operating subsidized day camps in Dimona, Arad, and Jerusalem.

They gave English classes in the mornings and workshops in arts, fashion, music, dance, and sports in the afternoons, all geared toward improving the campers’ English skills while promoting a positive self-image and traditional Jewish values.

Wolf recalled that one 13-year-old camper, often picked on by her peers, was in tears before the camp talent show, afraid the other kids would make fun of her stilt-walking performance. “She kept saying she was stupid and nobody would like her. It was heartbreaking,” said Wolf. “We finally convinced her to get on stage and she was really incredible. Everybody loved her performance.”

Senior Adam Weiss, a Miami resident raised in Englewood, worked with mostly Moroccan seventh- to ninth-graders in Dimona. “They have tough backgrounds and we want them to know people care about them,” said Weiss, who wants to be a lawyer.

“For me, it was a new experience,” he said. “Communicating with the kids from this poor neighborhood, some who could not afford the 350-shekel camp fee, opened my eyes to a new world. But the bottom line is that we have this common bond — being Jewish — despite our cultural and economic differences, and that became clear to me throughout the summer.”

The Dimona and Arad camps ran simultaneously from July 12 to Aug. 1. Six of the counselors — among them Teaneck residents Alon Meltzer and Atara Staiman and Daniel Altaras of Clifton — remained to staff a sleepover camp at the Yeshiva University campus in Jerusalem for teens from Yemin Orde Youth Village, joined by five more who flew in for this program. These five were almost all from North Jersey: Hana Zaydens of Paramus, Ayelet Kahane of Teaneck, and Shiffy (née Staiman, Atara’s sister) and Noam Friedman, who grew up in Teaneck.

“The students of Yemin Orde have been through a lot over the last several months,” said Shuki Taylor, director of the university’s Department of Experiential Jewish Education. The youth village was badly damaged in the December forest fire in the Carmel Mountains. “Yeshiva University wanted to do something to buoy their spirits and help them move beyond this period of loss,” he said. “The CJF worked in close partnership with the leadership of Yemin Orde to create a unique summer program to provide the teens with a safe, fun, and educational experience that will ease them back into the important business of being kids.”

Staiman said the group was composed of three teens of Russian descent and 32 of Ethiopian heritage. “That’s typical of the village,” she said, and accordingly the counselors received orientation in Ethiopian culture.

As in Dimona and Arad, this program had the overall goal of improving the campers’ English in order to better prepare them for high school matriculation exams. “We went to the Old City, to Masada, Ein Gedi (where we slept in Bedouin tents), the Supreme Court, and the Jerusalem Zoo,” said Staiman. “The idea was to expand their horizons while helping them learn English.”

Toward the middle of the session, which ran until mid-August, a teen named Atanow said to Staiman, “I know English because of you.” It was a poignant statement for her. “This is a boy who until then asked me to speak in Hebrew, and I kept saying I would talk slower but in English. They really have gotten better in two weeks. They’re very motivated and respectful.”

The other area students on Counterpoint Israel this summer were Moshe Azizollahoff and Noam Tokayer of Teaneck and Sivan Shachnovitz of Fair Lawn.

Counselor Elianna Wolf, right, with campers in Arad.

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